This article appeared in the May 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.
A YEAR AND A HALF AFTER HE LOST the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry can’t get enough of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. No matter the occasion, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to parade his campaign wounds, however incoherently and obsessively.
Supporting an Iraqi war vet running as a Democrat for Henry Hyde’s congressional seat? “I know something firsthand about the Swift Boat-style Republican attack ads of the last election — but you don’t have to take my word for it,” Senator Kerry wrote in a March fundraising e-mail, on behalf of Tammy Duckworth, an amputee whom no one has criticized. “Just ask John McCain. Ask Max Cleland. Ask Jack Murtha.” His futile, foreign-based filibuster attempt of Sam Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court? Why, John Kerry and his friends “will never surrender” to “Swift Boat-style attacks against Democratic candidates.” Asked if he’s accepted campaign contributions from Abramoff affiliates? “That’s another one of their ‘Swift Boat’-style tactics where they try to throw up the mud and stick it.” Since last November, Kerry has dredged up the Swifties in eight separate fundraising appeals.
One might assume that John Kerry would want to forget the Swift Boat controversy. After all, it effectively voided any military service advantage he might have had over President Bush and weakened his credibility on current military issues. Then again, if it was delusional of him to run as a war hero in the first place, admitting to such a gross political miscalculation would end his presidential ambitions once and for all.
While Kerry may be motivated by personal pique, the Swiftie mania is widespread among Democrats. “Swiftboat” has become a verb, shorthand among the left for an unfair smear. The Bush administration is “Swiftboating their enemies at home and torturing them abroad,” claimed Mother Jones. Rather bizarrely, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party attacked conservative political ads that use veterans and surviving kin of fallen soldiers as “a kind of ‘swiftboating.’” Chris Matthews asked Ohio congressional candidate Paul Hackett if his Iraq military service meant Republicans wouldn’t “swift boat” him. (In the end, it was Hackett’s own party that smeared him out of a Senate race.)
The term also works as an adjective, as Hillary Clinton demonstrated in a fundraising letter of her own in March. “Already the Republican Party is airing misleading attack ads in key swing states where they hope to pursue their ‘swift boat’ tactics to obscure their record of failure,” her letter said. The term is so commonplace that no explanation is offered; the audience is expected to understand that it means political foul play.
Kerry and his sympathizers have more in mind than settling old scores, though. The point is to inoculate the senator and other war-squeamish Democrats against charges of cowardice or ill will toward the troops. When Rep. Jack Murtha called for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq last fall, a single charge of cowardice made him the victim — instead of the troops whose mission he undermined. Frank Rich and Helen Thomas cried that Republicans were trying to “swift boat” him. When Cindy Sheehan’s credibility was questioned, she herself claimed to be the victim of “more ‘swiftboating.’” Any Democrat’s long-ago war experiences, however brief, have become his absolute shield from any criticism related to his military positions. By this logic, anyone who has once prayed would qualify for sainthood.
More broadly, the popularization of the “swiftboating” term has become a way the left can show its hostility to American troops and the policies they carry out. Most of the Swift Boat veterans who questioned Senator Kerry’s war record and objected to his characterization of American troops in Vietnam were political rookies. Their dog in that fight wasn’t so much a candidate or a party as the fact that the man who had smeared them was now applying to lead the U.S. military in the midst of an ongoing, consequential war. John O’Neill told us last year, “What brought us forth here, we didn’t believe this guy should command the armed forces of the U.S. We didn’t want him to command my nephew who was wounded in Iraq, or any other nephew over there.” These men stood up, knowing they had a great deal to lose, and caught hell for it.
UNLIKE THE SWIFT BOAT VETERANS, there was a group that was actually stopped from making its case in 2004. As documented in the film Stolen Honor, John Kerry had abetted the torture of captive American soldiers when he charged in his 1971 Senate testimony that brutal war crimes — murders, rapes, dismemberments, tortures, and decapitations — were commonplace actions by American troops in Vietnam. North Vietnamese interrogators were quite eager to use such accusations against American POWs. Kerry’s testimony was perfect fodder.
Kerry shows no sign of having learned his lesson 35 years after that notorious Senate testimony. He still levels the war crime charge against American servicemen. In a December interview with Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, Kerry alleged that American soldiers are “going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women….” And rather than issue an apology to the Stolen Honor vets, Kerry offers contempt. In 2004, Kerry’s campaign representative in Pennsylvania called the maker of the film a “Bush hack.” Last October, his spokesman David Wade called the filmmaker and the Stolen Honor vets “the same serial liars who disgraced themselves in 2004.” Sen. Dick Durbin called the documentary “scurrilous.”
These erstwhile free speech paragons used bully tactics to muffle the film during the 2004 campaign. A mid-sized Maryland media company, Sinclair Broadcasting, planned to air Stolen Honor in its entirety as part of a news program on its 62 stations in October 2004. Early that month, Sinclair contacted the Kerry campaign about having the candidate participate in the program, Mark Hyman, Sinclair’s vice president for corporate communications, told TAS. Shortly thereafter, on October 9, the Los Angeles Times reported Sinclair’s plans.
Democrats moved quickly to silence the film and Sinclair. That same day, a Saturday during a Senate recess, 18 Democratic senators wrote to the Federal Communications Commission, requesting an investigation. Eighty-five Democrats from the House followed suit the next week. The Democratic National Committee filed a complaint against Sinclair with the Federal Election Commission. The Kerry campaign spokesman said on Fox News that Sinclair “better look out.” Media Matters for America, a Democratic Party mouthpiece, attempted to stir an advertiser boycott and a shareholder lawsuit. In the L.A. Times article, Kerry spokesman Wade echoed these sentiments. “It’s not the American way for powerful corporations to strong-arm local broadcasters to air lies promoting a political agenda,” he said. “It’s beyond yellow journalism; it’s a smear bankrolled by Republican money, and I don’t think Americans will stand for it.”
In spite of this public barrage, the Kerry camp continued to meet privately with Sinclair, which offered the candidate an opportunity to speak on his behalf on the program or offer a surrogate. Hyman told TAS that Sinclair’s news executives and legal counsel met with Kerry campaign officials including Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager, and legal counsel in Washington after the L.A. Times published the broadcast plans. Throughout the media storm, Hyman said that he remained “guardedly optimistic” that Kerry would participate until the program aired.
Amid falling stock prices, threatened shareholder suits (which never materialized), protests, and federal regulatory complaints (since dismissed), Sinclair eventually minimized the film’s role in the news program. Hyman said that change was a news decision because “we became part of the news story.”
Consequently, most Americans didn’t learn about the Stolen Honor vets nearly as well as they did about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Kerry’s image of starched-white-uniform war hero, as depicted on the cover of Douglas Brinkley’s friendly campaign biography, depended on silencing those who could credibly say otherwise. Reflecting on the ordeal, Hyman put it well: “These were 13 men who suffered horrific abuse and torture because they wouldn’t say something that was untrue. Then in 2004 they’re accused of making things up.” One might say, Kerry and company swiftboated them.
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H/T to National Review Online